It is little known that patents, so important in our day, are
really of remote origin; their ever-increasing number is the
best illustration of the amazing rate of technical progress.
Since the establishment of patent laws in nearly all countries,
several millions have been granted. In the United States alone
the number of grants far exceeds two millions; throughout the
world over a thousand patents are issued every day.
For our purpose we may define a patent only as a temporary and
exclusive right granted for the exploitation of a new invention.
It would be vain to look for patents in ancient Greece and Rome.
During the classic period useful arts were regarded with
contempt, and although inventions were made by men such as
Archimedes, they were looked on as mere frivolities, scarcely
befitting a philosopher. In Rome there was another obstacle,
namely, the principles of Roman Law. Nevertheless a Greek
compiler, Athenaeus, of the third century A.D., mentions in his
Deipnosophistae that several centuries B.C. there were
culinary competitions in the city of Sybaris, which became
proverbial for its luxury. The successful cook, inventor of a
new dish, was given an exclusive right to prepare it during one
During the Middle Ages we find many industrial privileges, but
in most cases it is difficult to say whether they had any
connection with new inventions. Benjamin of Tudela, who
travelled ‘round the world’ from 1160-1173 (it was, of course,
the world as known at that time: Europe and the Near East),
mentions in his Itinerary that the King of Jerusalem
granted against the payment of an annual fee an exclusive right
to certain dyers, and we know that in the Middle Ages the whole
art of dyeing consisted of trade secrets.
* Reprinted from Chambers Journal, January, 1943.
The first mention of windmills is to be found in a ‘diploma’
granted in 1105 by a near relative of William the Conqueror,
Count William of Mortagne, who authorises a Norman abbot to
establish them in a certain area. It is not impossible that
this grant was connected with the invention of the windmill - at
least we may believe it to be so, until we discover an earlier
mention of that device.
Still in the Middle Ages, we see the first real patents appear
in Italy. Filippo Brunelleschi, the great architect, who in
1419 began to build the magnificent cupola of the cathedral of
Florence, is also the earliest patentee on record. In 1421 the
State of Florence granted him an exclusive right, valid for
three years, to build and use a device of his invention for
transporting heavy loads on the Arno and other rivers, and it
was even stipulated that the work of anybody imitating his
invention should be burned.
Long before 1400 the government of Venice was interested in
inventions and officials were appointed to examine inventors’
projects. After 1450 the grant of real patents became quite
systematic in Venice. The main craft of Venice was
glass-making, the secrets of which were jealously guarded; the
death penalty awaited Venetian glass-blowers who tried to
practise their art abroad. But glass was then so precious that
many Venetian artists were tempted to establish works abroad,
and knowing the Venetian patent system, the first thing they
sought in foreign countries was a monopoly for the new methods
they brought with them.
In this way patents were introduced into various countries
during the sixteenth century; and it is curious to note how many
of these early patents were granted for glass manufacture and
how many Italians there were among the first patentees.
In England the first patents for invention were granted during
the reign of Queen Elizabeth. (According to an erroneous
tradition patents were known at the time of Edward III.; this
may be dismissed as a pure legend.)
At the end of her reign public opinion became irritated by many
grants which had no connection whatever with new inventions, but
were just monopolies granted as a reward to courtiers, limiting
still further the already limited freedom of trade.
At that time patents were also granted in Germany and France.
Henry II., King of France, introduced a novelty which still
remains a basic principle of patent law, namely, that an
inventor must fully disclose his invention, so that the public
may benefit from it after the patent has expired. The
disclosure is now made by printing a description of the
invention. In 1555 the first ‘patent specification’ was printed
by royal command for an instrument maker, Abel Foullon, inventor
of a kind of range-finder. A copy of that curious booklet (Usaige
& Description de l’holometre) is kept at the British Museum
Library. The printed date thereon-1555 - was cunningly altered
by pen to 1561. As the patent was granted in 1551 for a term of
ten years, we may assume that someone held back the issue of
that book in order to minimise the chance of piracy. The same
forgery was discovered also on most other copies of that book,
kept in other libraries.
To return to Venice, we find that the great invention of
printing led to grants of a new kind, which we know under the
name of ‘registered designs’. In 1501 the Venetian printer
Aldus Manutius designed a new type, not straight, but sloping,
and more like handwriting. Aldus received in 1502 a Venetian
patent for that type, which we all know under the name of
italic. This kind of grant also was imitated elsewhere: In
1557 Henry II again issued an exclusive right to a printer,
Granjon, who designed another new type, called ‘caractere de
civilité’ but this type, unlike the italic, is not used any
Back in England, we find that during the early seventeenth
century Parliament fought against the abuse of monopolies
granted by the Crown. As early as 1602 Francis Bacon, speaking
in the House of Commons, laid down a quite modern principle,
namely, that monopolies should be granted only for the
introduction of new manufactures. T he Duke of Alba, the
governor of the Netherlands, formulated the same principle in a
letter written about twenty-five years earlier. It is difficult
to imagine such a person as having a modern legal mind!
Under James I. the struggle ended by victory for Parliament, and
in 1624 the Statute of Monopolies was enacted, partly owing to
the efforts of a remarkable judge, Sir Edward Coke, Bacon’s
enemy and rival. Thus England received the only patent law then
We have a convincing proof that even before the Statute of
Monopolies, wrongly considered by many as the origin of patents,
these, although by no means so common as to-day, were already
familiar to the general public. In 1616 the King’s Servants
performed at Blackfriars in London a comedy by Ben Jonson,
The Devil is an Ass. This play deals with ‘projectors,’
half inventors, half swindlers, always full of schemes; in
short, an early seventeenth-century edition of the later company
In Ben Jonson’s play, which, incidentally, contains the earliest
literary mention of a patent known to the writer, we have even
two such projectors. One of them, Lady Tailbush, is a ‘lady
projectress,’ and her male counterpart, Meercraft, describes her
She and I now
Are on a project for the fact and venting
Of a new kind of fucus, paint for ladies,
To serve the kingdom: wherein she herself
Hath travailed, specially by way of service
Unto her sex, and hopes to get the monopoly
As the reward of her invention.
Act III. scene i.
Meercraft has, among other schemes, the idea of getting a patent
for hygienic toothpicks, sealed; and sold with instruction as to
their use (Act IV. scene i.). But his great achievement is
disclosed in Act V. scene iii.
MEERCRAF: Have I desery’d this from you two, for all My pains at
Court, to get you each a patent?
GILTHEAD (a goldsmith): For what ?
MEERCHAFT: Upon my project for the forks.
GILTHEAD: Forks! what be they?
MEERCRAFT: The laudable use of forks,
Brought into custom, here, as they are in Italy,
To the sparing of napkins.
Gilthead to have the making of all those
Of gold and silver, for the better personages,
And you (viz. Sledge, a smith), of those of steel for the common
sort, And both by patent.
It is well known that Ben Jonson knew Thomas Coryate, who
described in a curious book (Crudities) how he learned to
use forks, common in Italy, but yet scarcely known in other
countries. Coryate became the laughingstock of his friends, who
called him Furcifer. It is probable that the passage quoted was
likewise intended as a jibe at Coryate.
Ben Jonson lived at a time when Venice was fast declining and
was being supplanted as a trading centre, first by Antwerp and
then by London. But Venice’s reputation as a place where
inventions were encouraged was not yet dead. Ben Jonson again
furnishes the proof. In his Volpone we find another
English projector, Sir Politick Would-be, who proposes to sell
his mad inventions to the State of Venice (Act IV. scene i.).
We are approaching what is called the Industrial Revolution in
British economic history; in plain words, the appearance of the
steam engine and of more or less automatic textile machinery,
two facts which transformed old crafts into modern industry.
This change was due largely to the existence of cheap coal in
Britain and to the Act of Monopolies, which stimulated
It is curious to note how two revolutionary events, the American
Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution, both led
to the introduction of patent laws, at a moment when there was
only one country, Great Britain, so opposed to these
revolutions, which had already a patent system.
This requires some explanation. These two revolutionary
countries gave birth to inventions which were revolutionary too,
although not in the political sense of that
word. About 1750 Benjamin Franklin created a sensation, as we
would say now, with his lightning-rod. For centuries thunder
and lightning had been looked on with awe as a sign of divine
anger, and however incredible it appears now, some of the best
minds of that time were so impressed by Franklin’s invention
that they really thought that a new era had begun, in which man
was to be the complete master of Nature. In France, about 1780,
the brothers Montgolfier made the first aircraft, and so
fulfilled one of the oldest dreams of mankind. Such inventions
helped to increase the free-thinking tendencies of the
eighteenth century. Turgot, not a revolutionary, but a great
French statesman of the old regime, coined a Latin hexameter in
praise of Franklin in his double role of revolutionary and
Eripuit coelo fulmen, mox sceptraque tyrannis.
(He robbed Heaven of its bolts, and tyrants of their sceptres),
and that parallel between Heaven and tyrants is very
Franklin, Jefferson - also an inventor - and Washington, deeply
interested in inventions, were the chief architects of the new
State. It is not surprising, therefore, that the new American
Constitution included a provision concerning patents; the actual
patent law was voted by Congress in 1790.
But in France, where the revolution was more extreme in every
way, arose a legal novelty; the notion that an inventor has a
natural right of property in his invention. It was probably the
Bernard Shaw of the period - the watchmaker and inventor Caron,
better known to us, under the name of Beaumarchais as author of
The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville -
who mentioned for the first time that kind of property. A few
years later the French Revolution started, and Mirabeau, great
admirer of Franklin, formulated that principle in the National
Assembly. In 1791 a bill concerning patents was reported to the
House by a most curious member of the Assembly, the Chevalier
Stanislas de Boufflers. Boufflers, who was born in Lorraine,
and whose mother was
the mistress of Stanislas I., King of Poland and Duke of
Lorraine, was already famous as a frivolous poet. Neverless he
introduced the bill with a most solemn speech and had it passed
without difficulty. During the nineteenth century other
Continental countries followed the example of France.
The later story of patents has little romance about it and has
interest only for the specialist, but the origin of patents, of,
which it has been possible to give only a few glimpses, provides
one of the most curious chapters in the history of civilisation.